Why The Vanishing Must Be Read & Why India’s Wildlife Crisis Matters

By Prerna Singh Bindra

For more than a decade, Prerna Singh Bindra has championed the cause of India’s wildlife conservation. She has served as a member of the National Board for Wildlife and its core standing committee (2010–13), and is also a part of Uttarakhand’s State Board for Wildlife. She is also the guest faculty for module popular writing at the National Centre for Biological Sciences and a published author with over 1500 pieces on nature and wildlife. 

A week or two back, a good friend (was, at least until this conversation!) called all praise for my recently released book The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis. He waxed eloquent about the cover (gorgeous), the subject matter (very relevant, so timely), my experience (an insiders’ view), and my writing (so evocative). ‘I have bought a copy or two. I have no doubt the book will make waves,” he said, “But, BUT, -and with this he brought my floating self down with a thud-“I am not going to read it.”

Not read it? Why?

His reasoning went thus: “We live in depressing times:  I mean, look at the state of the world, the state of the nation.  I have to watch what I speak, I have to be careful of what ammi packs in my tiffin for the train journey, breathing is tough shit as the air is poison (so is the water), and I am always nervously looking over my shoulder even when I am out for a stroll with my sister.etc. etc. ETC.

You get the picture?

I got the picture.

He was already depressed, and the ‘Crisis’, he said, would only take him down further. The book, I gathered, would hang around his shelf…or make its way to souls stronger than he.
His attitude troubled me, for my ‘friend’ is not alone in his escapism. It is indicative of the indifference-almost obliviousness, to this wave of vanishings that we are witnessing…which is one reason I wrote it.  And the book, is certainly, definitely, not about despair.

But before I delve further into The Vanishing, a para or two on what set me on this path.

Beginnings

My priorities in life were clear on the odd occasions snakes turned up in our home—usually an old bungalow with a huge, riotous backyard. If spotted in the garden, they were unquestionably left alone with a stern warning not to venture near the spot. I would insist on similar treatment if one turned up inside the house, even curled up under the throne in the loo –as it happened once. The retainer’s first instinct to take a lath (heavy stick) to it was imperiously quelled. The iron rule was: No harm must come to the snake. The family believed-I wouldn’t say they were very wrong—that snakes and other animals were way above on my priority list.

I was a shy child, an introvert-nose usually buried in books, preferably in the crook of a tree-in the company of birds, squirrels, the occasional mongoose and such like. I explored the wetlands and woods in the neighbourhood, with the occasional trip to the sanctuaries nearby like Gir and Narayansarovar (in Gujarat).  My affinity with animals had the kids around come to me with an injured pup, a squirrel rescued from the jaws of a cat or a little waif of a chick that had fallen of its nest. As an ‘animal doctor’ I was rather hopeless—survivors were few—as was the assistant, my dog Snoopi who had a nursing instinct, and fussed around any patient that landed up at my door!

So that was the other inspiration: Dogs. Being with, and knowing dogs ingrained in me compassion plus the  unshakable belief-now backed by science, that animals have a sense of self, and are thinking feeling beings.

I was also deeply influenced by the books I read: James Herriot with his delightful account of a vet’s life in the English countryside, Gerald Durrell with his fascinating repertoire of books including the absolutely hilarious My Family and Other Animals to M Krishnan, India’s finest naturalist. I was inspired by Rachel Carson who through her seminal ‘Silent Spring’ showed for the first time the perils of industrial agriculture-pesticides, and how they harm us.

I completed my post-graduation in personnel management, but I soon realized that my heart wasn’t in it. I was increasingly disturbed by the rapid transformation of my immediate environment.   High-rise apartments and shopping complexes  were coming up in open spaces and wetlands. A part of the Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary (Gujarat), where I saw my first wolves was cut up to accommodate a cement plant.

This was merely a microcosm of the rapid transformation of the country’s landscape.  All this immensely disturbed and influenced me, and I decided to shift from a potentially lucrative career to the newsroom, to highlight, and mainstream, ecological and wildlife issues.  After a few years in journalism, I shifted to being a wildlife conservationist, though I continue to write in mainstream media on wildlife issues.

How it happened

Travelling, researching and writing for the book was a journey of discovery. I met with the rarest of the rare. I visited the remote Thar desert in Rajasthan and met with one of the most endangered birds on the planet—the Great Indian Bustard: Only about a 100 and falling. I also learnt how deserts—which we consider barren and wastelands throb with life.  I encountered the elusive desert cat, a fox with its young, a button cute hedgehog, a committee of critically endangered vultures,  a pair of laggar falcons…to name a few.

One of my most memorable encounters is from Ranthambhore Tiger reserve, surrounded on all sides by four of the most incredible, charismatic creature in this world: tigers.
Hand on heart, I wasn’t scared, even though hemmed in by all sides by nature’s most efficient killing machines. I felt blessed.

I met with wild elephants and was moved by their beautiful, inexplicable  relationship with their ‘keepers’- the elephant mitigation squad, a rag-tag group of four who helped the elephants negotiate in a fractured landscape dense with human populations.

I was struck by how intelligent elephants are, how close are the bonds they share with their kin and of their empathy is. Animals were not the automatons we believe them to be. Even leopards whom we conclude to be solitary beings—have family ties. Talking to researchers I came across this  fascinating story of a young leopard ‘Jai Maharashtra’,  who, like any older sibling, would baby-sit, protecting the cubs  of his mother (lakshai) , when she went hunting!

So the book  has (as http://www.indiaspend.com surmises) ‘personal stories of missing school for the hatching of peahen eggs to moments with tigers, gharials and the bustard to trying moments as part of India’s National Board of Wildlife –and the author writes both about India’s successes and apathy to wildlife conservation.’

Why Wildlife Matters

Let me tell about the birds and the bees (no, don’t go ahead of yourself, it isn’t quite what you think!).  As a child, we had bees in our garden and backyards. I recall the pain of their occasional sting—and it hurt like hell. I would running howling, hollering for my mother, who rubbed the swelling—taking the sting out– with a butter knife,. With some soothing words, I was shooed off, back to the same garden to play.

There was no fuss, and it wasn’t a national emergency—like it is now when a hive is spotted in many of the ‘exclusive’ gated communities I have lived in. Pest control is called in, and the hive doused with pesticides and killed. We do it perhaps in the fear that one might sting our children.

Nevertheless, when we kill bees we deprive our children of vital foods.

As pollinators, bees are a fundamental part of food production. Along with other animal pollinators like butterflies, beetles, bats, they are believed to service two-thirds of crop plants from apples to almonds to coffee. Without such pollinators, our diet would be deprived of nutrients, besides being pretty boring. The decline in bee populations is catastrophic.  And that which is killing the bees—pesticides—is slow poison for us as well.

Extinction matters.

We think of vultures as ghoulish-as messengers of death, or use it as a metaphor of evil opportunists

India has lost over 95 per cent of its vultures, and this near-extinction of vultures has meant the loss of an efficient garbage–carcass disposable system and a vital health-care service.

It is not ‘only’ about the animals, the annihilation of forests cuts at the root of our survival.  Forests are river watersheds– about 75 per cent of the world’s accessible freshwater we use comes from forests.

India’s forests absorb over 11 percent of green house gasses; mangroves shield us from the devastating impact of tsunamis and cyclones.

The loss of nature is an existential crisis-our development will not be sustainable if we are not ecologically secure.

These are the links I dwell on, as I weave the book around India’s spectacular and endangered wildlife.

About the book

In a nutshell, The Vanishing takes an unflinching look at the unacknowledged crisis that India’s wildlife faces, bringing to the fore the ecocide that the country’s growth story is leaving in its wake. India’s leading newsmagazine, India Today called The Vanishing a riveting account of one of the greatest threats of our time-the deliberate annihilation of our natural world and with it our access to clean air, sufficient food and potable water.

It tells us why extinction matters, linking the fate of wildlife to ours.

We are in the middle of the Sixth Extinction. Every year, our planet, the only planet we have, loses over 150 species of plants and animals, and India is very much in the midst of this mass ‘sixth extinction’.

So yes, the book is bleak…a crisis by its very definition is so, and The Vanishing does not shy away from it. I mince no words to describe the enormity of it, or the task to retain, and restore, our fractured landscape, and preserve wildlife.

The crisis is enormous and urgent, but it need not be overwhelming.

There is hope. There is time . . . even though the clock is ticking away.

In fact we are in that ‘sweet spot’ of time, where we can turn things around for wildlife, if we have the will to do so, if we take urgent, focused action.

What is certain is, we cannot resolve the crisis by pretending it doesn’t exist, or be ostrich-like, burying our head in the sand.

The act of writing the book itself signatures hope—it is a rallying call: only if we call the crisis, will we act to resolve it.

We ignore it at our own peril.

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The Penguin India Blog

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